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Strengthening the Food System to Bolster the Nation

Power of Ideas
Strengthening the Food System to Bolster the Nation

The worldwide pandemic and economic collapse caused by the novel coronavirus is a global tragedy that will change the way we think about many things, including how food arrives (or doesn’t arrive) on our plates. We are part of an unplanned experiment in emergency supply chain readjustment as the crisis disrupts our highly nationalized food-distribution system and leaves shortages, price hikes, and hunger in its wake. Just as COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses in our public health apparatus, so too has it revealed the vulnerabilities of our food system. 

But while we’re still learning how to fight the virus, we already know how to feed our people. And we know that fighting the current crisis gives us the opportunity to make long-term improvements to our food ecosystem. This is the moment to harness market forces and craft wise government policies to enhance them. This is the time to make changes that will strengthen our nation for generations to come. Here are four ways to do it:

While we’re still learning how to fight the virus, we already know how to feed our people. And we know that fighting the current crisis gives us the opportunity to make long-term improvements to our food ecosystem.

Grow local. Investing in regional processing and distribution centers bolsters local economies, unclogs supply chains, and ensures quality products. It keeps critical farm and food businesses afloat while providing fresh and nutritious food to those who need it most. It creates the redundancies and distribution of resources that we’ve so desperately needed these last few months. We already have national programs with strong local components: free and reduced-price lunches and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which works with food banks, churches, and community groups. These provide a solid foundation on which to continue a shift to more regional procurement. Local food systems drive the economy of a place; they create community, provide jobs, and boost resilience to disruptive shocks such as the coronavirus crisis. 

Think small. The rapid closure of schools, restaurants, and other institutions has saved lives, but it has also meant that small farmers have more meat and vegetables than they can sell. This, in addition to bottlenecks within consolidated national food supply chains, has resulted in slaughtered animals, plowed-under crops, and other food waste. We must support the transformation of institutional food procurement to include small- and medium-sized food producers, starting by making it viable for diversified farms to access relief funds by expanding the period for which farmers can calculate their losses. Though economies of scale have produced a cheap and plentiful food supply, they have also made us vulnerable—not only as a nation but also as individuals by contributing to an epidemic of obesity that has contributed to death from COVID-19. For decades, we’ve built up a food system in which bigger is better, but the global pandemic reminds us that we must think small, too.

Relocate. In addition to more immediate actions, there are longer-term changes that will protect our farmers, our food supply, and our nation. For instance, produce and vegetable production is currently concentrated on the West Coast, especially California, but drought and other environmental issues point to investing in new production hubs in the South and Midwest. This is a tremendous opportunity to shorten supply chains, spur rural development, and alleviate poverty, especially among minority and historically disadvantaged farmers—to say nothing of diversifying production to places with more rainfall and fewer wildfires. Our national security and economic well-being depend on this kind of decentralization.  

Regenerate. If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it’s how sustained we are by what was previously invisible and ignored. Food systems are like that, and so is soil. The regenerative agriculture movement, which includes composting, rotational grazing, and cover-cropping, is not only good for the soil but also for the farmers who work it, who find tremendous cost savings in forgoing pesticides and synthetic fertilizer. If we can provide farmers with creative and low-risk financing mechanisms, including cost-share and forgivable loans, they will have the increased upfront costs it takes to make these important changes. Regenerative agriculture buffers us against extremes, and it offers opportunity.

“People in cities may forget the soil for as long as a hundred years. But Mother Nature’s memory is long, and she will not let them forget indefinitely,” said Henry A. Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visionary secretary of agriculture and our namesake. During the darkest days of the Depression, Wallace fought for farmers, developing crop subsidy and soil conservation policies that have endured for generations and pushing for racial equity at a time when few were doing so. We need this kind of wisdom and courage now more than ever as we confront another economic collapse—and use its revelations to improve our farms, our food systems, and our lives.